Inside the tech being used to combat ISIL online

U.S. State Department

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The U.S. State Department’s online counter-terrorism unit is turning to software automation and data analytics technologies to combat social media messaging from ISIL, with tools coming from both the public and private sector, Cyberscoop has learned.

The work being done inside the State Department is led by the innocuously named and recently relaunched Global Engagement Center, or GEC.

During an event last week hosted by D.C.-based think tank New America, GEC Chief of Staff Meagen LeGraffe highlighted the importance of the GEC’s growing “data analytics shop,” which not only monitors terrorist messaging but also assists by “measuring the success and effectiveness” of certain strategies.

LeGraffe went on to explain that the GEC is working with advertising agencies, technology companies, religious leaders, youth groups, foreign non-governmental agencies, terrorist group defectors and local civil society groups, among others, to craft effective, ultimately authentic messaging that dissuades audiences from supporting or joining ISIL.

When Cyberscoop inquired about the technologies being used, a GEC spokesperson said they include “the latest government technologies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Quantitative Crisis Response system as well as … Crimson Hexagon,” a social media data analytics platform used to monitor online activity and content trends.

DARPA’s recently announced Quantitative Crisis Response project aims to develop a suite of automated software tools that can help operators “better understand how information is being used by adversaries and to quantitatively predict and assess — in real time and at scale — the effects of those [digital] campaigns and of countermeasures,” a description by Program Manager Mr. Wade Shen reads.

Boston, Mass.-based Crimson Hexagon’s software can help analysts understand how specific messages resonate with specific audiences and the intended persuasion of a message, an online product description explains.

Numerous Silicon Valley-based software companies are also currently pitching GEC on different products and services, but the spokesperson declined to name vendors beyond Crimson Hexagon.

“We’re using proven polling operations, target audience studies and academic research for even more data sets. We’re always in the market for new and emerging data analytics technology and are working with partners across government and the private sector to that end,” the spokesperson said.

Last week, LeGraffe also appeared before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to discuss ongoing efforts to combat the Islamic State’s online presence. The back-to-back public appearances by GEC’s Chief of Staff represented one of the first times, since its birth, that a leadership figure openly spoke about the nascent program in such detail.

Over the last several years, the U.S. government has invested in programs that counter bad actors’ digital capabilities. One of the pioneering groups originally conceived to fight terrorism online — and more specifically, overseas — was the predecessor of the new-look GEC, named the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC.

The much-criticized CSCC was disbanded last year though, and then relaunched as the GEC in March via an executive order signed by President Obama. GEC, unlike CSCC, focuses on producing Arabic content and enabling partnering organizations to disseminate anti-terrorism information.

U.S. law enforcement officials have consistently pointed to the Islamic State’s ability to attract attention online through social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube to inspire attacks against American citizens. Last December, attackers who never physically met with ISIL operatives, but were influenced by online IS propaganda, killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.

Research conducted by the Homeland Security Institute shows that terrorist organizations are increasingly becoming digital, multi-faceted entities that understand the power of the Internet to both influence public opinion and recruit new militants.

Even so, it appears that the U.S. government is making up ground in the battle to quell the group’s online presence, according to the Associated Press. Twitter traffic tied to ISIL accounts has reportedly decreased by approximately 45 percent in the last two years.

‘We’re denying ISIL the ability to operate uncontested online, and we’re seeing their social media presence decline,’ Michael Lumpkin, former assistant secretary of defense for special operations and now head of the GEC, told AP.

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